When you’re searching for a misplaced item, it’s helpful to think about its color, size and shape. But Johns Hopkins researchers say traits you can’t see also come into play.

The researchers said that volunteers found everyday items in clutter 20% quicker if they subconsciously factored in traits you can’t see, like hardness or softness.

“Simply knowing the latent physical properties of objects is enough to help guide your attention to them,” said senior study author Jason Fischer, a cognitive neuroscientist in the department of psychological and brain sciences.

“It’s surprising because nearly all prior research in this area has focused on a host of visual properties that can facilitate search, but we find that what you know about objects can be as important as what you actually see,” he said.

For the study, Fischer’s team did experiments in which people tried to find everyday objects amid clutter.

Some searches involved hardness of the missing object. Researchers found that people used the perception of hardness to find the object faster, but none of the participants was aware of doing so.

“If you are searching for a sweater in a cluttered room, without any awareness of doing so you are able to avoid wasting time searching through the hard objects in the room and instead focus on the soft ones,” Fischer said.

The greater the clutter, the more that notions of hardness came into play. Hardness was taken into account even when people were shown line drawings of the missing object.

When researchers tracked where people looked during a search, they found that less time was spent looking at things that didn’t have the correct hardness or softness.

“To me what this says is that in the back of our minds, we are always evaluating the physical content of a scene to decide what to do next,” Fischer said. “Our mental intuitive physics engines are constantly at work to guide not only how we interact with things in our environment, but how we distribute our attention among them as well.”

He hopes to use these findings to study what people intuitively know about objects that may help predict what’s going to happen next in their environment.

The report was published online recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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